Christmas is a time for caring – for family, for friends, for neighbours. We can show this caring by cooking a meal, visiting someone we rarely see or inviting people round for the evening. For most of us this seasonal goodwill is a great joy, and a time we look forward to with expectation.
Spare a thought, then, for those people for whom caring is not just an occasional duty, but a daily responsibility forced upon them by circumstance, often unrecognised and unrewarded.
Earlier this month, to coincide with Carers Rights Day (December 8), new research from charity Carers UK showed that Newham has more carers than any other inner London borough, 20,663, with more people becoming carers here last year than anywhere else (7,645). Only Lewisham with 19,675, Lambeth (18,536) and Southwark (18,515) even come close.
What this means is more and more people looking after relatives, friends and neighbours who are caring for disabled, chronically ill and frail relatives. And the Carers UK research found that many of them were missing out on benefits, practical support and information.
If carers do not get the financial and practical support they need, they suffer from a poor quality of life, cutting back on the essentials they need to get by, and paying a heavy price in terms of their own health and well-being.
Too many people still do not know what a carer is, yet carers are a vital part of the nation's structure binding society together. They must be treated with dignity and respect, and their work delivering care must be recognised by us all. They should know where to turn for help, and what help is available to them.
The government is doing what it can to help. To mark Carers Rights Day the minister in charge of carers' benefits announced the launch of a new simplified Carer's Allowance claim form for pension-age carers, so more people are encouraged to claim the extra £26 on top of pension credit.
The Carers UK report showed that 65 per cent did not recognise themselves as carers in the first year of caring: for a third (32 per cent) recognition took over five years. As a consequence, one in three (33 per cent) believed they had missed out on benefits and pension entitlements, the majority (58 per cent) for over three years.
This is not good enough. There is help out there for those people caring for others, and I am determined to do what I can to make sure carers know about the help that is available to ensure that carers do not miss out on benefits and other support.
I have joined a number of other MPs in signing an Early Day Motion in November recognising the contribution of the nation's 6 million carers providing unpaid help for frail, ill or disabled relatives, friends or partners. It is essential that carers are given the help and information they need to regain control of their lives.
If you, or someone you know, is a new carer or just needs advice and support, Carers UK can be contacted on 0808 808 7777 or www.carersuk.org
Whatever you are doing this Christmas, I wish you every happiness and the best of luck for the new year.